My Brushes With the Yakuza – Reflections of Life in Akasaka, Tokyo

My first encounter with the ‘yakuza’ or the crooks and gangsters of Japan’s underworld, happened when I was 14 years old, on my way home from cram school. It was around 10 PM and having no friends who lived my way, I found myself walking alone through a deserted back street when a man in a loud red shirt and loose trousers seemingly materialized out of nowhere and stood blocking my way. In vain I tried to pass, and then brought my book bag up to my chest, probably to protect myself. “You’re out late,” he sniggered, edging closer. “Do you want to make some money? It will be so easy. Let’s go somewhere and we’ll talk about it.”


Could this really be happening? I felt the blood pounding behind my ears and my vision go black around the edges as I stood there paralyzed. After what felt like an hour but couldn’t have been more than a second or two, another voice came out of the dark. “What are you doing? Don’t waste time, we got things to do.” An older man drawing on a cigarette joined us. “What the hell are you playing at? Let’s go,” he said to the shirt and then to me, “sorry. Were you scared? You must have been. Be safe going home, your parents will be worried about you.”

Without a word, I fled and didn’t look over my shoulder until I was safely in front of my apartment building.

I learned later that this was an old yakuza tactic. There was always the younger guy who came on strong, and the older man who stepped in, seemingly to admonish him and then rescue you. But if you showed signs of hesitation at leaving, or showed up at the same spot the next evening, they would snatch you up. Later, they would blackmail the victim’s father into making cash payments in return for silence and the assurance that the incident will not crab his daughter’s chances of making a good marriage.

As anachronistic as this sounds, similar scenarios still play out all over Japan. Having any connection to the yakuza, even if it’s innocuous or remote, can spell disaster for the average, law-abiding Japanese. It could sabotage their chances of getting into private schools. Jeopardize their job applications to good corporations. And will likely botch up marriage prospects between respectable families. The yakuza are well aware of the fear and suspicion they trigger, and will milk it for all it’s worth. Blackmail and extortion continue to comprise a huge chunk of yakuza revenue. In 2020 alone, they made over 28.5 billion yen from just such practices, according to Asahi Shimbun.


That first encounter left a mark of some kind, subtly swerving my life in a certain direction. I longed to quit school and hang out in smokey coffee shops. I pined to get away from the boring, oppressive place called ‘home.’ My parents complained that I had ‘loose morals’ and would come to a ‘bad end’ unless I buckled down to my studies and became more serious about my future. “You’re not ‘katagi,” my mother would say, which means ‘solid citizen.’ In Japan, once you stepped off the rails of ‘katagi’ you were out of the game, and no one gave you a second chance. The opposite of ‘katagi’ of course, was ‘yakuza.’


In spite of my parents’ dire predictions, I somehow made it to adulthood, marriage and a baby. After about three years, my family and I moved into an apartment building in a town called Akasaka, famous for its criminally expensive real estate, high-end restaurants, exclusive bars, a lucrative sex trade and a sizable yakuza population. This was in the tail end of the 90s, when the Tokyo yakuza had the staunch support of right wing governor Shintaro Ishihara and were seemingly invincible. In Akasaka, they were the best-dressed people on the streets, with impeccably tailored suits and Italian silk ties. They were driven around in sleek German sedans and slurped their soba noodles in the same restaurant as the Cabinet Ministers who came down from the nearby Diet Building. Consequently the streets were perpetually crawling with security people, cops in uniform and police detectives. The combination of law enforcement, politicians and gangsters made it impossible for anyone to get out of line.


Akasaka was the safest place in Tokyo.


My neighbor, who lived on the same floor and whose daughter went to the same day-care as my own, was the son and heir to Tokyo’s most powerful yakuza clan. He drove a sparkling white Mercedes and would often give me a lift as I walked down the slope to the subway station. He was always elaborately polite with me and his wife and daughter often came over for dinner when he was “late at work.” By an unspoken agreement, we never talked about this “work” or even referred to him in conversation. One day when I suggested that we take a photo together with our girls, the wife looked uncomfortable and then refused outright. That night, realizing that I had committed an unforgivable faux pas, I couldn’t sleep. After that, she didn’t come around as much and a year later, announced that they were moving out of the building to a condo on the other side of Akasaka.

This thawed the ice between us and we laughed together like the old days. “We’re not abandoning Akasaka,” she said. “This whole town is just right for us.”


I too, found it hard to tear myself away from Akasaka even as I watched the oldest and richest properties being sold off to overseas investors, mainly from Hong Kong and China. From the early aughts to about 2012, the Japanese economy sank into the marshlands of a twenty year recession, and chipped away at the glamorous, old-money prestige of Akasaka. Companies went bankrupt. A famed record company downsized, and then moved away. Small businesses folded, and the premises were bought out by discount shop franchises.


I started working at a neighborhood cafe to supplement the dwindling income I made from journalism, for 900 yen an hour. It was a charming place, a real Tokyo coffee shop with Richard Ginori crockery and a little booth for roasting the beans, Fifteen minutes into my first shift, the owner/proprietor took a call on his cell phone and  after a few words, hung up and told me to cordon off the best table in the place, because ‘an important customer’ was arriving in exactly 45 minutes.

At the appointed time, a black BMW drove up to the cafe entrance. Two burly men were already waiting, and opened the heavy glass door of the cafe for an elderly man who had been helped out of the vehicle by his driver. The man came in, wielding a walking stick, and sat down at the table. No one said a word. My employer quietly poured out a cup of ‘blue mountain’ coffee which at 1200 yen a cup, was the most expensive item on the menu. The man picked up his coffee and sipped slowly. The tension was so thick you had to hack it with an ice pick, and I could feel the blood pounding behind my ears all over again. After he finished, the man spoke a few words to the two burly men, and one of them got up and paid the bill as the other got on his phone. In a matter of a seconds, the BMW was parked at the entrance and the elderly man got up. The three men left, and after making sure that they were truly gone, the owner gave me a sickly smile and said: “this happens at least once a week. You’d better get used to it.” It turned out that the elderly man was a yakuza boss and the cafe was his favorite haunt.


After that, I discovered that while the boss might show up once a week, his underlings and his personal driver was there most days. They monopolized the terrace seating area, smoking incessantly and ordering innumerable cups of coffee, talking in undertones or laughing raucously. When they were there, the regular customers – salarimen from neighboring web design companies and editors from a jazz magazine, avoided the place like the plague.


There was no denying that the yakuza were the cafe’s best customers and when they were there I rushed around with trays of coffee and cheese cake, replacing full ashtrays with clean ones and refilling glasses with iced water poured from a stainless steel pitcher. The yakuza are very particular about the establishments where they take their coffee which is why you won’t see any of them at a Starbucks. I became a little chummy with the boss’s driver who lived in the neighborhood. He told me to ignore him if we met in the street. “Pretend you don’t know me. Believe me, it’s for your own good. But in here, we’re friends, okay?”


In the mornings, the Korean hostesses working in the cabaret club owned by the clan, would come in to nurse their hangovers and air their complaints. Though they spoke Japanese well enough, they couldn’t read the text messages sent by their clients and often asked me to do so. Some of the messages were disgustingly racy, others were declarations of love or modest invitations to go out.


“So what does this guy want with me?,” asked Jun, a pretty 24-year old girl from Inchon who had the unfortunate habit of grinding out her cigarette in her piece of half-eaten marmalade toast. “Says he wants to play golf with you before taking this relationship to the next level,” I read out loud. “Ohhh. Is he going to pay me to play golf?” “I don’t know and you probably shouldn’t ask that over a text message.” “Japanese men are such wimps.” “No kidding!”


I worked at the cafe for two and a half years before the owner went bust and sold the place to a Korean businessman who happened to be a distant relation of Jun. In the end, my employer disappeared, owing me two weeks wages. I heard that he returned to Akasaka six months later, and was working in a rotisserie chicken shop. By that time, the cafe had changed completely, its air of old world charm completely quashed by the new owners. The clan stopped frequenting the place, and moved on to somewhere else. The driver was gone too, and I never saw him again.


In 2018, my husband said that he had had enough of Akasaka and wanted to move. I was inclined to agree. The entire neighborhood was a shadow of what it had once been. Small, green plots of land and shrine-owned gardens were paved over and turned into parking lots or hideous houses. The once flourishing love hotels were torn down and Internet cafes went up in their places, with cheap private rooms catering to salarimen and prostitutes. Little dark bars went bankrupt and were replaced by glaringly lit convenience stores. Korean restaurants with plastic storefronts muscled their way into quiet alleyways. In the midst of it all, many of the yakuza moved out. The streets filled up with Chinese tourists and digital nomads toting backpacks.


The boss with a penchant for ‘blue mountain’ coffee was in a posh nursing home, or so I was told by the gossipy grandma working the counter at a tobacco shop, which soon closed down.


After we moved, memories of working at the cafe and my brushes with the Akasaka underworld went sepia toned like a sequence in a cheesy Hollywood movie. And then it all came back this August, as I followed the trial of Satoru Nomura, head of the notorious Kudo-kai. This is Japan’s most powerful yakuza clan that had terrorized Kokura City in Fukuoka prefecture where they had their headquarters, for the last 3 decades. On August 24 Nomura was sentenced to death by the District Court in Fukuoka – marking the first time in the history of Japanese law that a gangster boss received such a verdict. Usually the bosses are immune to societal rules and their crimes go unpunished since the clans always have a set number of young thugs in the ranks to shoulder the blame. They go to prison with promises of being welcomed back into the organization once they get out, with hefty salaries and underlings of their own to kick around. And in the meantime, their families will be well taken care of, nothing to worry about there.


This time however, the District Court made it clear that they were trying Nomura as an individual criminal and not as a clan head, thus severing the chain of command that would have placed all the blame on an underling.


I had met just such an underling in the cafe, during my second August of working there and the memory has a special poignance because this man had seemed so pitiful, He came in at around 5PM, dressed in a suit that was too big for him, with a tie frayed on the ends. He looked around with something akin to sheer, delighted giddiness, saw there was a female on the premises and immediately started talking to me. He had just gotten out of prison. He hadn’t seen a woman in five years. He was longing to touch a woman’s skin, and the desire was enough to make him scream. Can he touch me please? (The cafe owner intervened at this point, and asked him not to harass the staff.)


He complained that his legs were aching from sitting in a chair, since he had gotten used to sitting on a prison floor with his calves tucked under his knees, like a Buddhist monk or a tea master. He had an upset stomach too, from eating restaurant food after years of prison fare. “My god, but this all feels so good! It’s so great to be out!”


I brought his coffee, which he spiked with many spoonfuls of sugar and a dollop of cream. “You don’t know how I’ve been waiting for this moment,” he said, before taking a big swallow and coughing most of it up, all over his shirt. He laughed it off and started to sip slowly. “I’m only 30, I feel like an old man. Five years of my life down the drain. But I’m determined to have a woman, every single night for a whole year! Just watch me!” By this time, the only remaining customer in the cafe was the yakuza who had come in with him, obviously the caretaker, who looked none too happy with his charge.


After that, the ex-con came to the cafe several times. He never tried to talk to me again, though he always had a smile plastered to his face and wore a new suit that fit. I heard him say to my employer that prison caused him to shed 15 kilos and he always felt tired. “But I can still have sex! That’s great, right? That’s what counts, right?”


The last time I saw him, he had taken off his shoes and was sitting with his calves tucked under his knees, atop the hard backed chair of the cafe. He was smiling beatifically, humming out of tune to a Coldplay song coming over the speakers. A short while later, two men who I’d never seen before came in and said a few words to him. He nodded, still smiling and put on his shoes. After paying for his coffee, he bowed deeply to my employer and then to me, before turning his back and walking out.

What This Means (a short-story about love and marriage in Japan during the pandemic)

by Kaori Shoji

credit: Kaori Shoji

Rikako, my wife, was staying with her best friend from university, the one that hung around her all these years and never got married. She was pretty attractive too, the last time I saw her, which was what, 10 years ago? Now I couldn’t remember what this friend’s name was. Something that didn’t end in ‘ko’ meaning ‘child.’  In Japanese, the ‘ko’ at the end of a name indicated that the person was female which in this day and age, can raise questions about misogyny or gender discrimination but let’s just put that aside for now. 

In Rikako’s case, the written characters of her name stood for ‘wisdom,’ ‘fragrance,’ and ‘child,’ and Rikako said she often felt uncomfortable by the sight of her written name. “It’s a little demeaning,” she had said, wrinkling her nose as if she smelled something bad. “Makes me feel like a little girl.” Then Rikako would get that look on her face, which was supposedly a cue for me to say something like “but you are my little girl. You’ll always be a young girl to me.” And then she would pretend to pout which was another cue for me to massage the back of her feet, and then we’d head off to the bedroom or just fuck on the floor. But for years I hadn’t taken that bait. I mean, come on, we’re both 45. That kind of ritual just doesn’t work anymore, not that it did when we were in our thirties. 

Back then we were just living together and not officially married. But Rikako loved planning what she phrased as ‘the inevitable event’ down to the last minute detail. She showed me sketched drawings of ‘my ideal dress’ and ‘the ultimate bouquet,’ and littered the living room with brochures from tons of wedding companies. She was adorable in her adoration of all things wedding and I would steal glances at her profile, poring over the menu cards or venue decorations. Not that it made any sense to me. All that trouble and fuss, not to mention the expense! It was horrendous. But if my little girl wanted to get married in a ridiculous white dress, then it was up to me to smile and nod approval and go along with it. 

One of the things I least like about Rikako is how she continues to think and behave like a young woman when very clearly, she’s not. Not, not, not. The topics she chose to talk about, her gestures and her ‘weekend loungewear’ supposedly chosen to stimulate our sex life, ended up being embarrassing, especially during these past few months of a global pandemic. Suddenly, we were  trapped in each other’s company for weeks on end, since both our companies mandated that we work from home. I didn’t know what to do with her, how to be with her and certainly not on a 24/7 basis in the confines of a cell-box Tokyo apartment. And she, on the other hand, was  annoyed by every little thing I did, or didn’t. That’s not precisely why she left but I’m choosing to blame it all on Covid. 

On the last Saturday of July 2020, Rikako announced that she was leaving “this life” with me, so she could “learn to breathe deeply again” in the house of her friend who didn’t have a ‘ko’ at the end of her name. She spent the morning packing, made some coffee which she poured out for the both of us, said something about the laundry and walked out the door with the big Samsonite, the one we both took turns using in the days when frequent business trips were the norm. I almost said, “Wait, I may want to use that” but I didn’t because I wouldn’t. Ever again, if the news was anything to go by. At this rate experts said, we would be lucky to start traveling again in late 2023 or thereabouts. 

I knew what she was expecting. That I would turn up at her girlfriend’s place, looking worse for wear, abashed and contrite and promising to do better. That I needed her, oh so much. That we would go away to an onsen for the weekend, and tell each other that the last three months hadn’t done any damage to our marriage. Just thinking these thoughts made me ore than slightly queasy, or inclined to kick the toilet lid which stayed flipped open, thanks very much. 

I didn’t. Go out to whatshername’s place, that is. I just stayed in our apartment for which I paid the mortgage every month and suddenly seemed airy and spacious. I worked during the day. Sometimes I did the laundry, otherwise I let my underwear pile up in the washing machine. I lost interest in mealtimes and ate whenever I felt hungry, on whatever tasted like something I wanted to eat. I played Assassin’s Creed until dawn. 

Now, three weeks after Rikako’s departure I would go for nocturnal walks around the neighborhood and stand by the river to watch the surface of the water break into choppy ripples. I would cruise the convenience stores and stock up on packets of salami and cheese. It was so intensely pleasurable, so immensely liberating, that on these walks I would take off my mask to let out a silent scream of joy. 

Marriage is hugely overrated. I was told it was the only route to happiness but I realize now it was a device that worked only when Rikako and I were putting in eighty-hour weeks at our respective jobs, and so burned out that self-reflection and long, winding discussions and bringing each other up to speed on what we wanted out of life I don’t know, all the stuff that married couples seem to do in Hollywood movies–seemed like an obscene waste of scant resources. 

Then the pandemic whirled into our lives and presented a whole new playing field. I was fine with being married to Rikako, but I sure as hell was not prepared to be with her day and night. No man should be asked to do that, at least not in a one-bedroom condo with both of us trying to work and Zoom and use the toilet, sometimes all at once. 

She claimed it was much worse for her and was relentless about letting me know it. 

“I hate the sight of you in those sweats.” “

You’re playing games all the time, can’t you rent a car and take me out on the weekends?” 

“I’m not your mother, don’t make me pick up your clothes.” “

The toilet’s dirty, you never clean it.” “

I’m not your mother, I can’t make your meals all the time.” “

I’m not your mother, stop acting like an overgrown kid.” 

In the old days, Rikako and I were buddies most of the time, united in our shared lifestyle choices. Our own condo unit in a nice Tokyo neighborhood. Both of us were career driven, with a joint savings account. Overseas vacations, preferably twice a year. And no kids, never. That discussion was over and done with when we decided to make it all official, and hold a ‘resort wedding’ in Karuizawa. Rikako had said at the time, and I’m quoting verbatim here: “I have no interest in becoming a mother and sacrificing my career and my looks and identity to that undertaking. It’s so meaningless, it’s so thankless.” 

“I have no interest in becoming a mother and sacrificing my career and my looks and identity to that undertaking. It’s so meaningless, it’s so thankless.” 
credit: Kaori Shoji

Did I judge her for that? Hell no. My mother shook her head and told me I would be lonely in my old age and that it wasn’t too late to walk out of this relationship and find a nice girl who would give me a family. I told my mother it was none of her business and stuck by Rikako. We had shared too much of our lives together to call it quits. Besides, she still looked good at 35 and I wasn’t getting any younger. I doubted I would run into anyone so desirable again. 

Mostly though, I was too exhausted from work to deal with it. I’m an aeronautical engineer and one of the core members of a government sponsored team that designs manned space vehicles. For the last 15 years, I was flying out to Houston to work with NASA every month or so, and deadlines popped up on my screen every 15 minutes. I was working weekends,   past midnight, sometimes until dawn. Until the pandemic hit, I could honestly say that Red Bull was my dearest friend. 

When Rikako and I finally tied the knot ten years ago, I was already looking forward to old age and some rock-solid downtime. Retirement seemed to me a glorious mirage of frosted cocktails, glimpsed in the burning desert of my work routine. I was Ralph Fiennes in “The English Patient,” trudging on the hot dunes forever and ever but knowing that eventually, Juliette Binoche would turn up to dress my wounds and whisper to me with a French accent that “everything was going to be okay.” We had the movie on Blu-ray. It was Rikako’s favorite and we would watch it on Saturday nights when I managed to be home. I kept losing the thread of the narrative because I always fell asleep but in the end, yeah, I got it. Ralph Fiennes: What an old dog. The guy is dying and delirious and he still can’t keep his mind off women. 

These days though, I think about old Ralph a lot. I ask myself what images would parade through my brain when I’m ready to kick the bucket and I have to admit, it’s not work. Women. It would be women, whether they had the ‘ko’ on their names or not. No doubt Rikako’s face would be one of them but there would be others. My life isn’t completely barren. There are some unforgettable visages and bodies and they’ll all come back to me as I lie there on a hospital bed. 

There’s one woman I’m sort of obsessed about now. I haven’t slept with her. I don’t know her name. She’s around 14, probably in her second year of middle school. Yes I know what this sounds like but I promise, this isn’t heading in that direction. This woman – this girl whom I privately named ‘Naoko’ after a girl in my neighborhood when we were both growing up – is someone I used to see in the subway station every morning as I commuted to work. 

Naoko is tall for her age, lanky and lean and tanned, with short hair that’s carefully tucked behind her ears. She’s always carrying around a big sports bag emblazoned with her school logo, and printed underneath are the words ‘Track and Field Team.’ She’s a runner, and I’m betting by her physique that she goes for the 400 meter. I was an 800 meter boy myself and I see all the signs of a mid-distance sprinter: the way she holds her head, the snatches of conversation I sometimes overhear when she’s talking to her friends, the condition of her calves extending from her pleated uniform skirt and ending in socks and a pair of brown loafers. 

The sight of her takes me right back to the days when I was training night and day to compete in the nationals and get a full-ride scholarship to one of the good universities. She even looks a little like my girlfriend of those days, whom I could  see only once every three weeks because the rest of my time was eaten up with running and school. 

Am I lusting after Naoko? To my utter relief, the answer is no. It’s a huge relief to be able to say that because otherwise I would be betraying the straight-backed, fresh-faced teenager that I once was. No, I just yearn to talk to her, encourage her, be a part of her life somehow. I think about how wonderful it would be if I had a daughter like her. We would share running stories and I could coach her on pacing and rhythm. I would tell her that mid-distance sprinting is the most intelligent of track sports and how rewarding it was to…

A buzz on my phone. I go take a look at it and it’s a message from Rikako. “I want to come home. I’ll see you in two hours or so. I’m sorry about having left but I think we both needed this break from each other.” 

After about 10 seconds of rumination, I send back a smiley face and the words: “I’ll be waiting.” 

My imaginary conversation with Naoko had already shattered into a million pieces and those pieces were floating around in the air. I sigh, turn off the air conditioner and go open some windows. I’m still trying to process the fact that Rikako will be back, marking the end of my days of freedom. I guess what this means now is that I have to do the laundry and clean the toilet before my wife gets back. 

FINIS

Japan’s Monster Mermaid Amabie is Here To Save You From COVID19! (Maybe)

People have different ways of dealing stress and fear, especially during a protracted battle with a worldwide pandemic. Some Japanese are claiming that superstition saved us (as opposed to the two cloth masks per person promised by Prime Minister Abe), along with praying at Shinto shrines and guzzling detoxifying green tea.

As fears over a Covid-19 ‘infection explosion’ very gradually recede in the rearview mirror, more people are in a mood to agree with these theories.

Your lucky lady

After all, rural and traditional Japan remained largely unscathed by Covid-19, and these are the areas where people routinely visit local shrines, carry omamori (お守り・talismans), ask for ‘oharai’ (お祓い) –which is the practice of having a Shinto priest chase out bad spirits and demons lurking in one’s immediate vicinity, and down a lot of tea after the ceremony.  If you get a Buddhist priest to do it, it’s yakubarai (厄払い). Add to that list, the drawing of an Amabie and posting it on social media. You may have just the armor needed for pandemic warfare. 


A what? An Amabie (pronounced ama-bi-eh) is a yokai (妖怪)which can be translated as apparition, phantom creature or monster. She has the appearance of a three-legged mermaid with a beak in lieu of a mouth and she’s been around since the mid-19th century, according to Edo-Period documents. Though the typical Japanese yokai is often grotesque and loves to play pranks on humans, the Amabie is a beach chick that emerges from the sea to foretell epidemics. If you carry around her picture, she can ward off mass contagion and the effect is doubled if you draw it yourself. A lot of people in Japan and elsewhere have tried their hand at drawing Amabie, and she now has a definite presence on social media, on #Amabiechallenge and others. 

Strangely enough, the Amabie has become a thing that may actually work. As of May 20th, the Japanese government has lifted the State of Emergency order for most of the nation, excluding the Tokyo metropolitan area. But the capitol city has been reporting less than 20 new infection cases for a week. Day care centers are talking about reopening as early as the 25th. Some local bars are welcoming customers again, even if masks are mandatory and draft beer is a thing of the past. Yes, the economy is in shambles and there’s nothing on TV but at least we’re seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. 

This isn’t the first time modern Japan has turned to superstition and yokai for solace and guidance. The late manga artist Shigeru Mizuki, creator of the mega hit yokai manga series  Ge ge ge no Kitaro (Spooky Kitaro) had always held that the yokai was what kept Japan from teetering over the edge into the abyss of disaster. Without their presence and powers, he said, the archipelago would just be a dreary sinkhole of greed and corruption. The yokai is a familiar figure in Japanese folklore, and some date back a thousand years. Some function as avatars for Shinto gods. Others do mischief and love to disrupt people as they go about their lives. The yokai can be friendly too, and will make good companions, as long as you respect tradition, revere nature and refrain from harming others. 


Mizuki hails from Tottori prefecture, a very traditional region that has racked up a total of three– count ’em three!–Covid 19 infection cases and zero deaths so maybe his take on the yokai was right. Mizuki’s own illustration of the Amabie has been posted on social media since mid-March, courtesy of Mizuki Production, and apparently this has been printed out and carried inside wallets or folded into omamori sachets. A friend of mine in Tottori reports that local reverence for Mizuki has soared, and the 800 meter long “Mizuki Shigeru Road” in his hometown of Sakaiminato, which is marked with yokai statues and merchandise shops, has seen a lot of (masked) tourist action. These people hang out bv the various yokai figuresto take photos, and leave little notes of prayer for the pandemic to end. 

Shigeru Mizuki died in 2017 at the age of 93 but if he were around today, he would no doubt have had plenty to say about the government’s handling of the pandemic. Mizuki was a WWII veteran who lost an arm in combat in Papua New Guinea, and the harrowing experience shaped his views on authority and Japanese society. After the war Mizuki struggled to survive before settling down to write manga, which he continued doing right up until his death. For many years, he could barely make ends meet but his career took off when the Kitaro series hit prime time TV in the late 1960s. However, success didn’t turn his head or soften his judgement on what he saw as crimes committed by the Japanese government, be it throwing the nation into war, or going whole hog on nuclear energy. His manga was never cute or very accessible – they depicted the Japanese as desperate and conniving, with caricatured features like bad teeth, squinty eyes and terrible posture. His portraits of the typical Japanese male were so unflattering they resembled the Yellow Peril posters propagated by the US military during WWII. According to Mizuki, the only way these unattractive Japanese could achieve a slightly higher level of humanity, was to befriend a yokai

Mizuki’s drawing of the Amabie though, is soft and friendly-looking. She really does seem concerned about the welfare of this archipelago. It’s not a bad picture to carry around, especially in a time when everyone is masked and avoiding eye contact as if the very act of acknowledging another person is a risky undertaking. If a picture of a three-legged mermaid is going to make people feel better about each other, it should probably be framed and put up inside the Diet building. 

THE BADGER AND THE STARS (a poem)

by Shoko Plambeck
The day my birth records were sent to a Shinto shrine
my father skinned a badger and hung its coat above my crib.
The tale of my birth supposedly unfolds like this:
The day I was born the stars were restless
and the earth was tossing a blizzard thick as cream
through the Nebraskan plains.
My father was on his way to work in his red Chevy
when he came across a dash of brown,
obscured by the snow like a fainting spell.
He shot it, thinking it was a soft furred marten,
but what he killed instead was a badger.
The badger of the plains. Symbol of earth, grounding
and consistency; finding her in such weather conditions
was like the moon waxing when it should wane.


Still, he put the creature in the back of his truck.
When he got to work, there was a call from my mother:
It’s two months early, but I’m going into labour.
My grandparents got the same call and flew in from Japan.
When my obaachan first saw me she announced,
This girl will be named Shoko, spirit in flight,
and years later when I moved from place to place,
hobby to hobby, man to man,
she’d lament naming me so irresponsibly.
In a shoebox, I went home.


The badger skin was nailed above my crib
and my birth records were sent to the monk at the family
Shinto shrine. The results came weeks later. My mother read
as I drank eagerly from her; she herself was a dark star
but at twenty-four she could not even imagine
what that would mean. Only years later
would she say that the badger had to be a mother
and the unimaginable must have happened
to make her split into the fatal snow.


My mother read: The child will need to seek grounding.
In the moment she was born the stars were restless
and they will reverberate through her blood forever.
Before she could read any further,
my grandmother snatched the fortune out of her hand
and read: bright as Sirius, inconstant as Mercury.

******

This poem was originally posted in Matador Review but was reposted with permission of the author.

Shoko Plambeck is a writer, traveler, and poet. She studied English literature at Temple University in Tokyo and the  University of Vermont. She currently lives in Japan but can’t wait to move back to the US to be with her cockatiel and poetry books again. 

May the Force Be With You (May 4th) Zen Wisdom From Star Wars! The Dao of Jedi

May 4th has become an iconic day for Star Wars fans across the universe.  “May The 4th Be With You” becomes “May The Force Be With You” quite nicely.  (If you already knew this, stifle that groan young Jedi, some of us didn’t know). And on this day, what better time to introduce one of the stranger and more delightful books to come out this year in Japan: Zen Wisdom From Star Wars (スター・ウォーズ 禅の教え エピソード4・5・6). It’s written by noted Soto Zen Buddhist priest, Shunmyo Masuno (枡野 俊明) and takes scenes and dialogue from the good episodes of the series to illustrate Zen Buddhist sayings and wisdom. (A full review will come later this month).

Zen Wisdom From Star Wars
Zen Wisdom From Star Wars

The book is well-written, with just enough English sprinkled in to make the book semi-accessible to those who can’t read Japanese or are still struggling to do so.  The books works better than you might imagine.

Zen Buddhism, was heavily influenced by Taoism, and George Lucas freely admits to having borrowed heavily from Taoism, Zen Buddhism, and Japanese culture in the creation of the Star Wars mythos.

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The book includes such pearls of wisdom as:

山川草木悉皆成仏 (Sansen Somuku Shikkai Jobutsu)/Everything is filled with the light of life (Everything has Buddha-nature).

安閑無事 (Ankan Buji)/Feel gratitude for everything no matter how small. Or rather: appreciate peace and quiet, health and safety. Because that won’t last forever. For example, affordable health care in America? Gone. (安閑無事が懐かしい)

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閑古錘 (Kankonsui)/Maturation and calm come as you accrue diverse experience.

Well, remember that Star Wars is just fiction, but good science fiction, and the words of wisdom in the movie were not said by Taoist sages or Jedi masters but written by screenwriters. However, if you want to know the philosophy and sayings that inspired the film, this book is a good place to start.

Or better yet, buy yourself a copy of The Tao Te Ching, and substitute the word “Force” everytime it mentions “Tao”.  According to the Star Wars English Japanese Dictionary, the Force (フォース) is all the energy derived from every living thing. The Tao, which is often described as being indescribable, is close to the same thing.

 

So for your further education, here are few words from The Force Te Ching

Force Te Ching

by Yoda- chapter 81

Truthful words are not beautiful.
Beautiful words are not truthful.
Good men do not argue.
Those who argue are not good.
Those who know are not learned.
The learned do not know.

The Jedi never tries to store things up.
The more he/she does for others, the more he/she has.
The more he/she gives to others, the greater his/her abundance.
The Force of The Light Side is pointed but does no harm.
The Force of the Jedi is work without effort.
(adapted from the Tao Te Ching translation by Gia-fu Feng and Jane English)

 

So until next year, May the Force Be With you!

フォースと共にあれ!

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Spring Healing: An Art Exhibit–last day March 28th

Tokyo Art Studio Launches ‘Spring Healing’ Joint Art Exhibition

Featuring 14 Japan-Based Artists & Over 100 Pieces of Artwork

With Spring comes new beginnings! Tokyo Art Studios is thrilled to announce their inaugural exhibition, titled “Spring Healing”, which features over 100 artworks by 14 emerging and established artists based in Japan. The “Spring Healing” exhibition runs until March 28 2021.

The exhibition highlights artist experiences in Japan using varying aesthetics relating to their mediums, including oils, acrylic, watercolor, illustrations, silkscreen, and photography. The artists hail from Japan and around the world, but all call Japan home today. The themes of Japan’s nature, arts and society, are woven into all the pieces.

All artworks can be viewed online at a later date but come see them in person while you can. Some featured artists include:

Johnna Slaby

Johnna Slaby is an abstract artist born and raised in Japan, and currently works between Japan, the UK, and the US. Utilizing various materials from acrylics to coffee, she creates abstract pieces that are reminiscent of a late-afternoon coffee or the golden hour near a river. Through the experiences and stories that she comes across during her travels and life, she works them into pieces to create memories people can see. From her large canvas pieces to her intimate paper studies, she dissects both mundane and profound moments of life, continuing to ask, What does it mean to be alive?

Shinjiro Tanaka

Shinjiro Tanaka is an artist who expresses the infinite possibilities of simple lines by combining contradictory elements such as calmness and passion, past and future, and life and death. His works are not limited to canvas painting, but also include murals, apparel, three-dimensional objects, and digital art. Born in CA in 1985, he graduated from Keio University in 2008 and moved to NYC after working for Dentsu. He brings a variety of experiences to his art, including working as a music producer’s assistant and Performing with Nile Rodgers and CHIC, launching the apparel brand BSWK, and performing at Heisei Nakamura-za in New York. After returning to Japan, he held his first solo exhibition “FACE” in 2018; at the end of 2018, he performed live art on the streets of New York for 30 days, and the following year held his solo exhibition “NYC STREET ART PROJECT”. The same year, he won the ART BATTLE TOKYO competition and has been working unconventionally in Japan and abroad, exhibiting at a gallery in London and creating murals on the streets.

Keiko Takeda

Keiko Takeda’s practice allows her to express her favorite places and unknown corners of the world through colors and shapes. Each subject is made warmer with her brush as she believes that colors have feelings that embody our own emotions. Keiko has shown her work in many exhibitions, both solo and group shows.

Marie Ikura

Marie Ikura studied art, and more specifically painting, while at Tama Art University before becoming a professional artist whose signature style is based on live art. Often, Marie creates live paintings that share space, time, and music with the people present where her work is ever-evolving as the paint scatters, making sounds such as “voice of color”. In addition, she engages in participatory art like wearing art or consuming art. Her live work has taken her to regions in Europe and Southeast Asia.

About Tokyo Art Studio

A new Tokyo gallery which opened this March (2021) – Tokyo Art Studio strives to provide a platform for the global community of emerging artists based in Japan. Through exhibitions and programming, TAS encourages our community to creatively connect with one another through the power of art and dialogue. To learn more about Tokyo Art Studio

.

The Studio is located at 3-17 -12 Minami Azabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo

Visits outside of exhibit times are by appointment only.

Email and questions or request for interviews to contact@TokyoArtStudioGallery.com.

“Nothing says love like menstrual blood.” In Japan, V-Day chocolates are really special

Japan has a unique way of celebrating western holidays. On Christmas Eve, men and women check into Japan’s ubiquitous, pay by the hour, slightly kinky boutique hotels, also known as  “love hotels” and celebrate the event with raucous but tasteful intercourse.

On Valentine’s Day, the women buy chocolates for men. The men reciprocate a month later on White Day, a candy industry invented holiday, by saying thanks for their expensive chocolate gifts with cheap white chocolates.

On Valentine's Day in Japan, women give chocolate to men. And some women put a little blood and sweat into making home-made chocolates for their true love. Metaphorically and literally.
On Valentine’s Day in Japan, women give chocolate to men. And some women put a little blood and sweat into making home-made chocolates for their true love. Metaphorically and literally.

The whole holiday is a huge headache for many Japanese women who not only buy chocolates for the most important lover in their life, which may not necessarily be their boyfriend, or husband, or even a man at all–but they also have to buy and give chocolates to work acquaintances and close male friends. The chocolates that you give to your lover are called 本命チョコ (true love chocolates). Those you give out of obligation (義理) are called giri-choco (義理チョコ).

Love, blood, chocolate and a love hotel is all you need. Happy Valentine's Day in Japan!
Love, blood, chocolate and a love hotel is all you need. Happy Valentine’s Day in Japan! Hey and the costume rentals look amazing. Notice the lovely Disneyesque fonts.

 

Well, some women in Japan, and probably a very small number of them,  in order to spice up their home-made chocolates with a little extra something, or give their store bought chocolates  something really special--are reportedly (self-reportedly) putting a little of their own blood and sweat into the cooking of gooey sweets. Literally. Sometimes body fluids such as blood, sweat, and spit are the secret ingredient in chocolates given by Japanese girls to the boy of their dreams. If they aren’t really doing it, they are at least certainly tweeting about it.  One sneaky chef recommends that people use frozen raspberry puree in their home made chocolates to disguise the blood’s taste and appearance. (I always knew there was something about raspberries I didn’t like.)

Japanese girls and women have been tweeting about mixing blood, spit and other bodily fluids in the chocolates for their "true loves" as a sort of magic. How many really have? Who knows?
Japanese girls and women have been tweeting about mixing blood, spit and other bodily fluids in the chocolates for their “true loves” as a sort of magic. How many really have? Who knows?

Obviously, some of this self-reporting is dubious and simply black humor but it’s not altogether an unknown practice and reports of it date back at least to 2011.

There seems to be a primitive belief in Japan that one’s blood or parts of the body have magical powers of attraction and that by having your true love consume it, that they will become a part of you or inseparable. In other words, if you are the one in love but not your partner (片思い), having him drink your blood is believed to make you fall in love with each other equally. (両思い).

The insertion of bodily fluids into chocolates is considered to be a sort of black magic (黒魔術) or a spell/majinai(呪い). Or perhaps, women just do it because a popular website reported it as new trend. In Japan, what is reported to be a trend, often becomes a trend based on that report. The news makes the news. Of course, one respondent to JSRC explained her reasons for putting her blood in the chocolate as simply, “I thought it would make the chocolate taste better.”  (血液を入れたら美味しくなるかと思ったから)

Ideally, says the blogosphere, if you are going to lace your true love’s chocolates with blood, menstrual blood is the most powerful. For those women to be having their period during Valentine’s Day is an auspicious sign.  Women are advised that if they don’t have blood to give, to try fingernails, skin, or other materials from their own body.

We agree that the “bloody valentines” are not a trend, and  probably only made only by a fringe element in Japan but there you go. Japan apparently isn’t the only place where the magical attractive powers of a woman’s blood in the food of her man are supposed to to make him a love slave. This is allegedly a common voodoo belief as well. However, in Japan they seem to be more methodical in how to do it, including recipe suggestions—even if some of that is in jest.

It goes without saying that consuming the blood of another person is probably not healthy. And the jury is out on the efficacy of chocolate’s sterilization of harmful viruses in the red elixir of life.  So for you lucky guys in Japan getting a box of chocolates from your “true love” or would be “true love” ; be sure to get vaccinated first and consume carefully. If you suddenly find yourself feeling strongly for your lover in what was once a one-sided relationship, well then you’ll know something magical is happening.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Note: This article was originally written without one tasteless pop-culture reference to horror/slasher film “My Blood Valentine.”  Angela Kubo, food writer, gracefully contributed to this report. 

 

Happy Uniquely Japanese Valentine’s Day! What we talk about when we talk about love & sex in Japan

It’s Valentine’s Day again in Japan or it will be soon….And while Valentine’s Day is a mutual exchange of gifts and professions of love in the West, in Japan it’s a holiday where women give expensive fine chocolate to the men they love and crappy obligatory chocolate to the men they work with or work for, known as 義理チョコ (giri-choko) or “obligation chocolates.”

According to Encyclopedia Aramata, Valentine’s Day was first introduced into Japan in February of 1958 by an employee of Mary Chocolate Co. Ltd, who had heard about the European chocolate exchanges between couples from a friend living in Paris He decided it would be a brilliant marketing technique in Japan so he organized a collaboration with Isetan Department Store in Shinjuku, Tokyo. It was an incredible….failure.  “During one week we sold only about three chocolates worth 170 yen at that time,” an employee recalled.  Yet this employee persisted, later becoming the president of the company, and by the 1980s, he and Japan’s chocolate industry, along with the department stores, had enshrined Valentine’s Day as a holiday that is “the only day of the year a woman confesses her love through presenting chocolate.” The spirit of love.

But of course, as time went by, giving chocolate became something women were expected to do for not only the their “true love” but people at work, their bosses, their friends, and even, their brothers. 義理チョコ  (giri-choko) aka “obligation chocolate” has branched off into “友チョコ (tomo-choko)”  chocolate for friends, 世話チョコ (sewa-choko), chocolate for people who’ve looked after you, 自分チョコ (jibun-choko), a present for yourself, and even the rare 逆チョコ (gyaku-choko) —the rare event when a man gives chocolate to a woman on Valentine’s Day (revolutionary).

When we say “Valentine’s Day” in Japan, it doesn’t quite mean what it means in the West. (We’ll talk about White Day in March). And if you think about it, what do we really mean when we talk about love? Japan has some very specific terms for discussing and classifying love. Although the terms can be expressed in English, the compactness of Japanese words for sex, love, and everything in between is quite charming.

Japan has many words for love and sex. It’s surprisingly rich in words for love such as 友愛 (the love between friends) and 親愛 (love between family members) and of course 恋愛 (passionate love) . Here are some of the words you may find useful as you travel through love hotel island.

The Japanese language is rich in terms for love and sex--which are definitely not the same thing here.
The Japanese language is rich in terms for love and sex–which are definitely not the same thing here.

*出会い(Deai)–“meeting people” Also used to describe dating sites 出会い系サイト and one-night stands.

不倫 (Furin)-“adultery, infidelity.” Has more of a negative connotation than uwaki

慈愛(Jiai)–compassionate love. Much like the love a parent feels for their child–a desire for the happiness and well-being of another. When the Dalai Lama speaks of love in Japanese, this is often the word used to translate his words.

 

*浮気 (Uwaki) –1) to describe someone who can romantically love many people 2) infidelity; an affair 3) being in love with in someone other than your partner 4) (old usage) cheerful and gorgeous

*恋人 (Koibito) “lover”

*熱愛 (Netsu-ai) “passionate love”

*恋愛 (Ren-ai) “romantic love” A word very popular in Japanese woman’s magazines

*恋い (Koi) “love”

*一物 (Ichimotsu) “the one thing”  According to an old joke, the definition of a man is this: a life support system for an ichimotsu (the penis).

*慈悲, 慈悲深い (Jihi) (Jihibukai) “compassionate love/sympathetic joy” This comes from Buddhism and describes a maternal love, originally means to give joy and peace to someone and remove their pain. 慈悲深い人–someone who is compassionate and finds happiness in the happiness of others.

*情熱 (jounetsu) “passion”

*ラブ (rabu) “love” pronounced Japanese style.

ラブラブ (rabu rabu) “love love” used to described a couple deeply in love.

*同性愛 (douseiai) “homosexual love”

*愛 (ai) love. “to love” 愛する (ai suru)

*好き (suki) like. Used often to express love as well. 大好き (Daisuki) “really like” Old school Japanese males never say, “I love you” (愛している) they would say, Daisuki. This line:“君が大好きだ” (Kimi ga daisuki da). “I really like you” is often the profession of love in a Japanese movie or television show on both sides.

純愛 (Jun-ai) “pure love” An almost mystical concept of love as something beyond physical or material reality. I’m still not sure what this means but it sets off lights in the eyes of Japanese women. It’s a television drama buzz word.

*惚れる (horeru) fall in love

*惚れ込む (horekomu) fall deeply in love

*一目惚れ (hitomebore) love at first sight “hitome” first sight. “hore” fall in love (see above)

満足manzoku (satisfied)

*セックス (Sex)—This is “Japanese English.” It means sex.

*前戯 (Zengi)–Foreplay. Mae (前)means before and “戯れ” means “play, goof around”.  Technically this entry should have been before Sex (セックス) on the list but then I wouldn’t be able to make this joking reference here.

*セックスレス (Sexless)—Maybe half of Japanese marriages are sexless. Who knows why? It’s a common complaint for Japanese women and some Japanese men..

アイコンタクト (eye contact)” Important in courting.

*エッチ (etchi) A cute-word for anything sexual, flirty. Usually has a fun connotation.

*男根 (dankon) “male-root” If you can’t figure out what this means, please refer to 一物 (ichimotsu)

*おまんこ (o-manko) The female genitalia, sometimes just the vagina. Also referred to as simply manko. However, we prefer attaching the honorable “o” as in “orgasm”.  Also, it’s never bad to show respect. Even amongst the closest of friends, decorum is necessary. 親しき仲にも礼儀あり

*愛人 (aijin) Lover. The aijin is usually the partner in a forbidden romance. Similar to “koibito” but more of a shady aspect.

*オーガズム (ougasumu) orgasm

オルガスムス (orugasumusu) orgasm in Japanese taken from German Orgasmus

絶頂 (zettcho) climax, orgasm in Japanese language

*失楽園 (Shitsurakuen) A very popular novel and movie about a passionate modern day affair that ends in double suicide, with the lovers found dead in each others arms in mortal post coitus bless. Yes, you wouldn’t think this would encourage people to have affairs but it did! Women’s magazines had multiple features on the books and movies.

潮吹き (shiofuki): female ejaculation. Some Japanese women release a squirt or excess lubrication on orgasm. There appears to be some science suggesting that this does happen.

鼻血 (hanaji): bloody nose. There is a strange folk-belief that when a Japanese man is sexually excited he gets a nosebleed. Go figure.

Note:

In Japan, when man or women reaches orgasm, they don’t come (来る) they go (行く/iku). Likewise, to make a man or woman reach orgasm, is to 行かす (Ikasu) “make go.”

 

楽園 (rakuen) mean paradise. 失(shitsu) means “loss” or as a verb 失う(ushinau) to lose.

 

If I was running a campaign aimed at women for Japan’s favorite 浮気(uwaki) dating site for married people, I might make a pun on this along the lines of “恋愛の楽園を失いましたか。Ashleymadison.jpで禁断の楽園を再発見しよう“ (Did you lose your lover’s paradise?Rediscover the forbidden paradise on Ashleymadison.jp) BTW, the site already had a 1,000,000 members within 8 months.

*恋い焦がれる (koikogareru)=”burningly in love” to be in love so deeply that it’s painful, to yearn for the other 恋い (love) + 焦げる (burn).

Not a negative word, but a way of expressing a deep passionate consuming love. Many men and women seem to be seeking

*ベッド (bed)—usually a roundabout way of discussing sex in Japanese female magazines

–プレイ”—(play) This is usually added to various types of sexual fetishes.

性愛 (sei-ai) Erotic love, eros (sex/gender 性 +  love 愛)

For example, 赤ちゃんプレイ (Aka-chan purei)—When the guy likes to be diapered like a baby, possible shaved completely nude, and nurse, sometimes with a woman who’s actually lactating. I could tell you a really strange story about a police raid on a place specializing in this type of service but I’ll skip it.

 

*遊び (Asobi) “Play”—this can refer to sex, an affair, a one-night stand. It has a wide usage in Japan and adults “play” just as much as children. Hence the costume fetish in Japan—

コスプレー (cosupurei—“costume play”)

 

密事 (mitsuji)—An old word but a literary one for discrete affairs.

*禁断の愛 (kindan no ai) Forbidden love

*密会 (mikkai) secret meeting

*ばれない (barenai) to not be discovered, to get away with something

*絶対ばれない (zettai barenai) “absolutely no one will find out”

REVISED: February 14th, 2018

The (Homoerotic) World of Tom of Finland: Reality and Fantasy opens September 18th. First time Tom shows in Japan!

Tom of Finland (1920-1991) was a pioneer in LGBQT and homoerotic art, blazing a trial in Finland and his works have been shown all over the world. From today September 18th, his work will be exhibited for the first time in Japan (ever) at Parco Shibuya. In a country where alternative sexuality is still barely recognized and some politicians spew homophobic bile, it’s a small accomplishment that the show is being held.

The exhibition will only last until October 5th.

The show has taken nearly years to put together, was delayed by COVID19, and ran into numerous obstacles along the way; thanks to the collective efforts of all involved, including the Embassy of Finland, the show is finally taking place. The whole story behind the curtains is told eloquently in this piece by Justin McCurry in The Guardian

I almost gave up’: Tom of Finland exhibition to finally open in Japan

Be sure to try the Tom of Finland vodka. The hard stuff.

The exhibition will show that his work was a catalyst for social change and acceptance of homosexuality while celebrating sensuality and the beauty of the male body. The curator of the exhibit and director of The Container, Mr. Shai Ohayon points out that Japan is still very much behind in the recognition of gay and LGBQT rights.

(From the press release) “Historically, the images highlight milestones and artistic stylistic developments in Tom’s life and practice—starting with his 1940s and ‘50s paintings in gouache, of men in stylish attire and uniforms, such as sailors, soldiers and policemen, in fantastic and romantic compositions, influenced by his army service in Finland—to his stylized depictions of leathermen and muscle men in the ’60s and ’70s”

The exhibit is being sponsored by: The Finnish Institute in Japan. Finnish Institute in Japan. The Container (art gallery) and PARCO.

The exhibition was designed to coincide with Tom’s 100th birthday anniversary and features a selection of 30 historical works, ranging from 1946 to 1989. They span the artist’s entire professional career, and highlight both his artistic versatility and present his identity as an LGBTQ legend who paved the way for LGBTQ rights worldwide and helped to shape gay culture.

2020/09/18~2020/10/05 Reality & Fantasy: The World of Tom of Finland at GALLERY X (B1F, Shibuya PARCO) https://art.parco.jp/

Open hours 11:00-21:00 *Last entry time 30mins before close *Close at 18:00 in 10/05 Admission is 500 yen.

*Pre-school child not allowed in

A documentary on the importance of Tom of Finland and the meaning of his art will also be shown at at two different theaters during the exhibition. “Award-winning filmmaker Dome Karukoski brings to screen the life and work of one of the most influential and celebrated figures of twentieth century gay culture: Touko Laaksonen, a decorated officer, returns home after a harrowing and heroic experience serving his country in World War II, but life in Finland during peacetime proves equally distressing. He finds postwar Helsinki rampant with homophobic persecution, and men around him even being pressured to marry women and have children. Touko finds refuge in his liberating art, specialising in homoerotic drawings of muscular men, free of inhabitations. His work – made famous by his signature ‘Tom of Finland’ – became the emblem of a generation of men and fanned the flames of a gay revolution.

Movie Screenings:

Tom of Finland (2017), directed by Dome Karukoski

from 2020/09/18~2020/09/24

White Cine Quinto

(8F, Shibuya PARCO)

https://www.cinequinto.com/white/

From 2020/09/25~2020/10/08

Shibuya Uplink

Sadogashima in a time of COVID19

From Island to Island: Sadogashima in a time of Covid19

by Louise Claire Wagner

Anything and other than expected. A journey to some parts of Sadogashima

*This articles is reposted with permission from https://www.louiseclairewagner.com

When years ago, I first took notice of Sadogashima’s existence, I was instantly intrigued by the idea to visit there one day on my own. Though, I could not really tell why. For sure, pictures of the landscapes and the curiosity to discover the local culture played a part, howbeit Japan counts numerous astonishing places, and ultimately, I have to admit that it was above all the idea to break away which allured me as much. Indeed, I associated physical and mental distance with Sadogashima; disconnection, not with Japan, but somehow with the world. Before undertaking my journey, I had only briefly read some background information and not made any particular travel plan, as I wished to leave freedom to my own perceptions. However, and despite the aim to head out without any expectations, I quickly got confronted with fact that I had unconsciously and unwillingly pictured this place as well as my stay. 

Seemingly small, Sadogashima, located off Niigata, is the largest island in the Sea of Japan. Its area is approximately 855 square kilometres and its coastline stretches around 280 kilometres. The population was at about 56,000 in the end of March 2018. Although I knew about this, I still couldn’t get rid of the idea that Sadogashima had to be compact and it was only through several walking and bicycle tours, and the distances together with the (hilly) relief put my physical capacities to the proof, that I finally started to agnise the island’s vastness. 

Excavations from ruins indicate that Sadogashima has been inhabited for about 10,000 years. It was one of Japan’s independent provinces in the Nara Period, and early designated an island of exile. Beginning in AD 722 with Hozumi Asomioyu, further exiles included figures such as the former Emperor Juntoku in 1221, the Buddhist monk Nichiren in 1271, and Zeami Motokiyo in 1434, a Noh actor and writer, all of whom expressed critical opinions about the respective then-ruler. Today, many people ascribe the miscellaneous population and the cultural richness of the island to the prior exiles. Sadogashima is also known for its gold production, and back in the days, it was notably the shōgun Tokugawa Ieyasu who promoted the development of gold and silver mines by placing them under the direct control of the Tokugawa Shōgunate. The prosperity attracted diverse workers and resulted in a rapid rise of the island’s population, which reached a peak of 125,597 in 1950. The mines were operated from 1601 until 1974 and definitely closed in 1989. With a remarkably rich, diverse and well-preserved environment, Sadogashima was the last natural habitat of the internationally protected wild Japanese Crested Ibis (Toki) which became endangered and went extinct in 2003.

Sadogashima (2019 ©jakeadelstein)

However, artificial insemination started in 1999 and after 2000, baby birds were raised with increasing success and released back into nature.

Today, the main industries on the island are agriculture and fishing, and although for me everywhere on the archipelago fish and seafood has so far been delicious, the incredible freshness and quality of Sadogashima’s catch (combined with a glass of local sake) was so tasty that I had to enjoy it for every single dinner.

A cup of sake at a shrine 2019 ©jakeadelstein

When some weeks ago, I boarded the ferry that brings one within two and a half hours from Niigata Terminal to Sadogashima Ryōtsu Port, I immediately was captivated by the particular atmosphere and intrigued by some other passengers. There were few people; a group carrying music instruments, some families, a young couple with camping equipment; a couple with numerous stuffed manga characters (that got carefully installed along one of the ferry’s windows), as well as several dispatched individuals whose actions did occur rather incomprehensible to me… But this was only the beginning of my reflection upon the island’s curious population.

©louiseclairewagner ”Upon The Sea of Japan 2″

The accommodation I stayed at disposed a very small number of rooms, some shared facilities including a charming and neat salon and kitchen, and (just as I had pictured !) a large terrace with ocean view. There I was, the sea in front of my eyes, fairly disconnected, and incredibly happy. 

At my arrival, most of the other rooms were occupied by a Japanese three-generation family who enjoyed dinner at the first floor-situated gourmet restaurant. Besides some words and friendly gestures, we did not further communicate though. 

The following day, after returning from a long trip to the very south of the island, I met two young women who had planned to eat downstairs the accommodation and stay overnight. When they told me that they both lived on Sadogashima, and one of them only few minutes away from the accommodation, I was rather surprised and wondered why they would book a room although they could practically walk home. Anyway, I didn’t want to be unpolite or intrusive and therefore just imagined possible reasons. As they proposed, I joined them later for some delicious fish, seafood and sake at a nearby izakaya. We shared very pleasant moments, and I ended up being kindly invited to have lunch with them the next day. 

No sooner said than done, we were headed to a local restaurant. When in the end of the lunch, one of the staff pulled down her mask, smiled, and asked me if I remembered her. I was rather perplexed : it was the middle-generation mother who stayed at the same accommodation as me two nights before. The girls explained that her family owned the restaurant we had eaten lunch at and that she lived nearby. 

The same evening, I crossed paths with three older women, who were calmly sharing some citrus fruits in the common living room. Although already tired, I could not decline their invitation to join them for a little talk. When they told me that they just finished dinner at the restaurant downstairs, that they would stay for a night at the accommodation, yet that they all lived on the island, I started to really wonder about Sadogashima’s curious inhabitants, their tendency to eat out during the week and their way to treat themselves by combining gastronomic pleasure with an overnight stay. 

“On The Edge” ©louiseclairewagner

The last day before heading back to Tōkyō, I had a pleasant conversation with the proprietor of the accommodation, who generously gave me a voucher for a future stay. When I told him about my amazing yet peculiar experience with all the locals, he mentioned that this may not happen a next time and finally unveiled the secret: because of COVID-19, Sadogashima had launched a campaign for its inhabitants, in order to stimulate the tourist industry and local economy. 

As mysterious it seemed, as simple it was. I had to smile. About the situation and about myself. About how we imagine things if we don’t know and don’t ask. About the curiosity of life, and the beauty of the unpredictable… Had I maybe imagined myself alone on a deserted island or amidst some stranded tourists, but hardly surrounded by these nice new acquaintances. 

I would be lying if I said that it was love at first sight, and Sadogashima probably counts amongst the places which require not only time but also an open mindset in order to be enjoyed. Nevertheless, its particular atmosphere, the pureness of nature and honesty of people caught me, and it was with a nostalgic feeling that I left the island behind. When on the way back I found myself all alone on the large deck of the ferry towards Niigata, I had surprising sensations, feelings of energy and enthusiasm, and finally understood why I had been intrigued by Sadogashima for so long. Very differently than expected, it seemed that I precisely found what I had hoped for.

Addendum

Certainly, there are many more aspects of the island that I could and should discover, but this shall remain for the future. Now I know some locals I sincerely wish to meet one day again, and not to forget, I still have my voucher.

For the original artwork and more musings on Japan, life and art please go visit LCW: Louise Claire Wagner

Born and raised in Basel, Switzerland, Louise Claire Wagner is based in Tōkyō, Japan and is an award winning photographer.